When can you tell if feedback is genuine?

Presentations, creative writings, videos, art, etc. There are a lot of times when we want feedback from our peers, test-readers, and professionals. But if we ask someone if our creation is good, how can we know if the “yes” is genuine?

There are a few ways to divine the truth of someone’s feedback–I wish I had more, and would appreciate any comments (or feedback ;)) suggesting more methods. But for now, I’ll share what I know.

More importantly, I’ll emphasize this point: sometimes it’s not the sincerity of feedback that you need, but the personal information to know whether or not to implement the feedback.

Lie detecting:

How to tell if someone sincerely liked it:

We’ve all done it before. We present in front of our family, give our friends a manuscript, play a song for acquaintances, and then we ask what they thought. They respond with a simple, “I liked it. It was good,” and then move on with the rest of the day. Did they mean it, or were they being polite?

In this situation, it’s near impossible to tell. They might have liked it, but have a sour tone because you forced them into feedback. They might have hated it, but are faking a polite tone because you’re a friend. They might even list off ten things they didn’t like but still enjoy it far better than any other they’ve seen in months.

So, asking directly isn’t a good tactic in this case. The key to telling if someone liked your work is letting them come to you. If you hand someone a manuscript, you can tell that they genuinely enjoyed it if they go on to make fan art of it. If you gave a presentation and a random stranger came up to complement you, then there’s very little chance they’ve being insincere. Few people go out of their way to lie unless they have something to gain from it: if they didn’t like it, they would smile and nod and keep their mouth shut as much as possible.  Asking to hear you play more, asking permission to write fanfiction, asking for a picture to send to a friend — those are all clear-cut methods of divining sincerity

The exception to this section is kiss-ups looking to brown-nose you.

How to tell if someone sincerely didn’t like it:

This is one is much easier. If someone goes out of their way to criticize your work, they probably didn’t like it. If you ask someone’s opinion directly and they’re negative, that’s also a clear-cut sign. The exception to this section are trolls and hecklers, who are only trying to amuse themselves by getting a reaction out of you.

However, there are other cases where someone will try to disguise or rationalize their negative experience with your creation. For instance, in arts, friends will often say, “It’s just not my genre.” Sometimes, this means they thought it was bad but don’t want to hurt your feelings. Other times, this means they genuinely thought it would succeed in your target genre, but they’re not fans of your target genre. While it’s nearly impossible to tell which this is, it can still provide valuable information: because in either scenario, they still did not enjoy it.

Which brings me to the third section of this post: figuring out whether or not this person’s opinion is worth taking into account.

The value of opinions:

How to tell if their opinion is worth your while:

This, of course, is a tricky and subjective one, but far more important than most people make it out to be. The media constantly barrages us with depictions of classically trained actors and painters who get all fussy whenever someone questions their genius. This has led many people to believe that all artists are self-obsessed brats who always think that they’re right.

Conversely, every (not “nearly every,” I mean EVERY) creative type that I’ve personally met instead takes any and all criticism to heart. Giving any negative feedback (or even a lack of positive feedback) is liable to make an artist melt into a puddle of sadness, donate their guitar to charity, throw their manuscript in the trash, and vow never to present in front of an audience again.

Stephen King once said, “The editor is always right.” Unfortunately, he failed to clarify which editor this was supposed to be — I’ve had different editors give me completely opposite feedback, and if both of them were right, that might rip a hole in the logical fabric of the universe. That being said, it’s important to be able to parse out which feedback to take into account.

Obviously, the final decision is subjective and comes down to the creator’s goals and beliefs. However, there are ways to make this sort of discrimination easier, and the main one is knowing your editor well.

Where did the opinion come from?

In my experience, input from random strangers or acquaintances is never very useful — because the more you get to know that person, the more you understand the bias underlining their feedback.

Take for instance writers trained in journalism. When I worked for my school’s newspaper, our assigned writing style had two goals: save space and don’t be biased. To save space, we left out the passive tense, Oxford commas, descriptions, and so on. To avoid bias, we left out all dialogue tags (ex. “exclaimed,” “yelled,” “wondered,” or “taunted”) that weren’t “said” or “asked,” removed all adverbs that did the same, and left out all personal thoughts. Unfortunately, many trained journalists decide that fiction novels should work the same way. I’ve had several editors strike out all of the above space-users and emotionally charged words, only to find out later that they were journalism majors.

Similarly, this can affect genre. In the writing world, the two largest mega-categories of genre are “commercial fiction” and “literary fiction.” People trained in one of these camps often abhor the other, and will grow angry if they read something that contains elements promoted by their enemies. For instance, hard-core proponents of literary fiction detest anything filled with emotion, such as car chases, romantic scenes, or pop-culture references; whereas commercial fiction advocates will scoff at anything that gets too philosophical or fancy. In his memoir Stephen King said, “Take all those messages and those morals and stick em where the sun don’t shine.”

You get the idea.

I’ve met people who feel personally offended when science fiction is not entirely accurate (aka in the genre of soft science fiction, instead of hard science fiction, where every technology is feasible. Think “bitten by a radioactive spider” versus “we use such-and-such element to fuel space travel”). I’ve met people who go off the rails when they read urban fantasy instead of high fantasy. I’ve met people who are ideologically against italics or flashbacks or the word “use.”

The same goes for every other creative project. In presentations, some people are enraged by the idea of putting any text on a slide whatsoever, whereas others are perfectly content to fill an entire page with 8-point words. In songs, plenty of people insist that “rap isn’t music.” Many artists gate-keep their particular sub-trade, calling graphic artists fakes or calling charcoal unnecessary.

This is why it’s exceedingly important to know your editor well. It sounds silly, but many people hold certain opinions because they’ve had a bad experience with the thing they hate in the past–like when you meet a teen who’s afraid of dogs because they were once trampled by one as a child. Others may idolize a particular genre because a song in that genre helped them through tough times, or because it’s what their parents used to sing to them. Sometimes it’s a matter of age or where someone comes from. Sometimes it’s the mental state the person’s in now (In my experience, the angriest feedback comes from people who turned out to have clinically diagnosed depression.). Sometimes a young artist is brainwashed by that one acting class they took with that one professor, or insists on following every technique that one famous artist mentioned in a memoir.

“Genuine” or forced?

So even when a person is giving truthful feedback about how they feel, it may not be “genuine” feedback: the way that person would feel if they got out of their depression, or hadn’t been bullied by the literary fiction camp recently, or hadn’t been forced to read so many dystopian novels in high school. How can it be someone’s “genuine” opinion if it was forced onto them?

We’re all tempted to think that positive feedback is a polite lie and negative feedback is truthful, because everyone has been warned against believing something that’s too good to be true. But a person’s psyche, opinions, and emotions are a complex interplay between every event that has ever happened to them. The better you understand the person giving you feedback, the better you will be able to avoid the influence of an experience someone had a long time ago. The more you know of an editor’s personal history, the more equipped you will be to determine if their feedback is “true” or “genuine.”


2 thoughts on “When can you tell if feedback is genuine?

  1. In the end, I’ve been told, your most important critic is yourself. In my own fiction writing, I take that to the extreme. Which is probably why it takes me so long to finish anything. I’ve been working on the same stuff, off and on, for years. In contrast, my non-fiction writing gets finished expeditiously because it is subject to deadlines from publishers and to feedback from reviewers who are supposed to be experts in the field. After-publication feedback can be annoying. I’ve heard “Hey, great book!” from people who haven’t read anything but the cover. Others point out fact mistakes. Those are embarrassing.

    Like

  2. You’ve pointed out many good considerations, especially to think about the background/bias of the person giving the feedback.
    How do you feel about asking “what do you like about my (work)?” and “what don’t you like about it?” Would that help produce good feedback?

    Liked by 1 person

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